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Saad S. Kenderian, Reona Sakemura, Nan Yang, Michelle Cox, Sutapa Sinha, Mehrdad Hefazi, Michael Hansen, Kendall Schick, Cynthia Forsman, Justin Boysen, Wei Ding, Sameer Parikh and Neil Kay

Despite the remarkable outcomes of CD19-directed chimeric antigen receptor T (CART19) cell therapy in B-cell malignancies, the durable responses in diffuse large B-cell lymphoma are less than 40%, and strategies to enhance this response are desperately needed. Inhibition of AXL RTK with TP0903, a high-affinity AXL inhibitor has been found to induce robust apoptosis of malignant B cells. Here, we aimed to examine the role of AXL RTK inhibition with TP0903 on T-cell function in B-cell malignancies. First, we investigated the influence of TP0903 on CART19 cell phenotype and functions. Here, we used 41BB costimulated, lentiviral-transduced CART cells. AXL inhibition led to polarization of CART cells into a Th1 phenotype when T cells were stimulated with the CD19+ mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) cell line Jeko or with leukemic B cells isolated from patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), in the presence of TP0903 (Fig 1A). Exposure of activated CART cells to TP0903 also resulted in significant downregulation of inhibitory receptors on activated CART cells (Fig 1B), a reduction of conical cytokines known to be associated with the development of cytokine release syndrome (CRS) (Fig 1C). To investigate the effect of AXL RTK inhibition of CART cells with TP0903 in vivo, we established MCL xenografts through the injection of 1.0x106 of Jeko into NSG mice. A week later, mice were treated with either vehicle alone, TP0903 (20 mg/kg/day) alone, 0.5x106 of CART19 alone, or TP0903 (20mg/kg/day)+0.5x106 of CART19. Three weeks after the treatment, mice were rechallenged with 1.0x106 of Jeko. Mice treated with CART19 and TP0903 rejected the tumor challenge while mice previously treated with CART19 alone redeveloped MCL, suggesting that AXL inhibition enhanced CART cell persistence (Fig 1D). Finally, we validated our preclinical findings in correlative analyses of phase 1 clinical trial of TP0903 in patients with solid tumors (NCT02729298). Similar to our findings, there was a significant reduction in Tregs, reduction of inhibitory receptors and polarization to a Th1 phenotype. These findings will be further investigated in a planned phase 1 clinical trial of TP0903 in relapsed/refractory CLL (NCT03572634) In summary, we demonstrated for the first time that AXL inhibition polarizes T cells into a Th1 phenotype, downregulates inhibitory receptors, and synergizes with CART cells in B-cell malignancies. These findings encourage further study of TP0903 as an enhancer of T-cell immunotherapies.